Anchorage’s new health director wants to ensure access to COVID vaccines without mandating them

Anchorage Health Director Joe Gerace began his tenure with the municipality on Sep. 17, 2021. He was appointed by Mayor Dave Bronson. (Office of Mayor Dave Bronson)

Joe Gerace is in his first full week leading the Anchorage Health Department as the city’s health care workers contend with a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

In an interview Tuesday, Gerace said the pandemic has had sweeping impacts on many Alaskans.

“It’s the people who are having an increase in domestic violence and narcotic overdoses. And I think it’s a totality,” Gerace said. “While I do truly feel for the situation that’s going on with the ICU beds, I think it is an emergency that’s created a burden on multiple systems, not just the hospital system.”

Gerace took over as director of the city’s health department last Friday, three days after doctors at Providence Alaska Medical Center sounded the alarm over the state’s surge in COVID-19 cases, and announced the hospital had begun to ration care as ICU beds filled. 

Gerace said he hasn’t met with any hospital officials yet in his initial days with the municipality, but he’s been listening to public testimony hospital workers have made to the Assembly.

“I think we’re just in the ‘try to absorb what’s going on’ mode and then present them with some options,” Gerace said. “But I don’t have that answer right now — like I said, it’s day three for me.”

Prior to working for the city, Gerace had a career as an emergency responder and then worked as the director of operations for Visit Healthcare, the municipality’s main testing and vaccine provider.

Gerace himself is vaccinated against COVID-19 and says he believes the vaccine is safe for Alaskans who don’t have other certain underlying medical conditions. 

“We have not seen any significant correlation to vaccinations and acute outcomes from that vaccination,” he said.

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Even with vaccination, Gerace said there are certain public situations where he still wears a mask. He said masking is one of several steps people can take to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“Distancing, hand washing, proper room ventilation, sanitation, vaccination, testing,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of aspects to something. This isn’t, ‘I have an upper respiratory infection, I take a Z pack.’ This is very complex, like managing diabetes or cancer, that’s going to need multiple steps.”

Since taking office in July, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson has refused to enact any new masking or social distancing mandates, despite the municipality seeing its highest rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations since the pandemic began. Bronson, who previously contracted COVID-19, has also said he won’t get a vaccine. 

Gerace stopped short of recommending that people wear masks in public or get vaccinated, saying that medical decisions should be made between a patient and their medical provider. He said the health department’s job is providing resources to the public.

“We’re going to keep doing the program that we’ve been doing because we believe it’s effective,” Gerace said.

Moving forward, Gerace said he wants to hear from Anchorage residents who have had difficulties getting a COVID-19 vaccine. While Gerace said he believes there’s a section of the public that will outright refuse to get vaccinated, he wants to ensure the shots are as available as possible. 

“It’s just a matter of trying to overcome that last percentage of people, and being available to the people that have a change of heart,” Gerace said. “So as they have that change of heart based on a friend getting it, or hearing about something, or just deciding, their employer requires it… we’re going to be Johnny on the spot giving the vaccinations that they need, with the information they need to make an informed decision.”       

Gerace was appointed to his position of Anchorage health director by Bronson last week. His position is subject to confirmation by the Anchorage Assembly. 

Bronson’s original pick for health director, David Morgan, resigned last month, a week before his confirmation hearing. Morgan generated controversy for his social media comments that downplayed the pandemic and allegations that he had mismanaged funds at a health care nonprofit he worked for. 

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Wesley is a reporter for Alaska Public Media, covering primarily city government and Anchorage life. He previously worked at Alaska Public Media as a web editor, producer and education reporter before a two-year stint in Kotzebue, AK as News Director for KOTZ-AM.

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